Discussions of guitars and guitar styles have gone on for so long they’ve probably contributed to global warming. But for guitarists, this is just the kind of discussion we’ll never finish.
The question of which guitars are best for fingerstyle is one of these eternal subjects, and as always, with so many variables, it ultimately comes down to personal preference. But even though fingerstyle applies to many different playing styles, there are some things that are pretty straight forward. For example, Classical Guitar or Flamenco are ‘fingerstyle’ and for obvious reasons, best suited to nylon strings. Folk Blues is also fingerstyle and sounds best on steel strings. This doesn’t mean you can’t get some blues out of a nylon-string, but have you ever tried to play flamenco on a steel-string? Ouch.
Lets go over a few of the other factors that distinguish a good fingerstyle guitar. Number one is a harder wood for the back and sides, mahogany being the frequent choice, often on a smaller body guitar. Some harder rosewoods are touted, but here, it starts being like trying to tell the difference between five different zinfandels. The same goes for distinguishing the effect of a harder spruce for the top, can you really hear it? Or don’t you, in fact, just feel it when it’s right for you? For me it comes down to a guitar that rings out, but doesn’t resonate to where the overtones are washing over each other and drowning out the overtones of the next notes. And mahogany does that well. This means that comparing the fingerstyle guitar you’re interested in with a mahogany guitar is a good idea. Get them to take out that nice, vintage mahogany-back guitar and A/B it with the ones you can actually afford. You might realize one of those really holds up, even if it’s got different wood like koa or another more exotic species. Other woods have their own characteristics and can work well with fingerpicking and fingerstyle jazz. Maple, with a brighter sound, has great attack, a sharper cut off to the decay, like mahogany, and it’s own special ‘zing’.
The number two issue, especially when it comes to intricate, folk blues fingerpicking, is a slightly wider neck, a full 1 3/4″ instead of the 1 11/16″ of most modern folk guitars. This little bit of extra room, as well as more space between the strings at the bridge, lets you ‘select’ notes with more precision. For faster pieces with lots of movement in the left hand, this will slow you down if you’re not used to it, but for really crystalline, intricate picking, it is the way to go.
A third factor is the length of the neck. I prefer a short scale guitar (24.9) because with a driving thumb on a folk blues number, I’ll tend to overdrive the strings on a long scale guitar (25.4,) especially if I’m using a lot of chords and open strings on the treble. The shorter scale makes bends easier, and has a different dynamic or ‘punch’ than the higher tension of longer scale guitars. .
All kinds of fingerstyle guitar music is being created on many different guitars; there are incredible, sweet OM guitars I’d love to get my hands on. And an acoustic electric dreadnought is the right choice for a specific player. But really folks, let’s be serious, there’s nothing else like the combination of a 000 series guitar with a mahogany back, playing some old-school, country blues.